Israël-Palestine: the Challenge of Peace
The current impasse suggests that only with international engagement can a peace settlement be achieved.
On the 26th July, Robert Serry, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East peace process, warned the Security Council of a profound deadlock in the Israel-Palestine peace process.
His statement will surprise no one. In Palestine, new hope arose with the signing of a ‘reconciliation agreement’ in May, in the presence of the UN, the EU and the Arab League, between the secular movement Fatah, which controls the West Bank, and the Islamist Hamas, which rules in Gaza. This deal was immediately vitiated by the Hamas leader’s bizarre description of the recently killed Osama bin Laden as an ‘Arab Holy Warrior’. Though Fatah is internationally recognised as a kind of government-in-waiting, Hamas remains officially a pariah.
Later in May, the Government of Israel also proved intransigent. President Obama demanded that a future Palestinian state be based on the 1967 borders (with mutually agreed territorial exchanges) and that settlement construction in the Palestinian territories must cease. Mr Netentyahu rejected these demands: the 1967 borders were ‘indefensible’, leaving ‘major Israeli population centres beyond those lines’. Yet the 1967 borders are the accepted baseline for all peace negotiations since the ‘Road Map’ proposed in 2003 by the ‘Quartet’ (the UN, the USA, the EU and Russia). Mr Netenyahu’s reaction confirms what Palestinians have long claimed (and Israel has consistently denied) that settlement construction created ‘facts on the ground’ that jeopardised any peace process by rendering a Palestinian state untenable.
Amidst this political impasse, a recent meeting hosted by the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church in London focused on the increasingly precarious position of the region’s Christians. Speakers included the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, and the President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Cardinal Tauran. Patriarch Twal insisted on the crucial contribution of the international community, noting the asymmetry of the power relationship, and the almost total lack of trust, between the two negotiating ‘partners’.
At least five elements seem essential to a peace agreement.
- First: the recognition by Arab states of Israel’s right to exist, and of its legitimate security concerns . (Palestine, unable to defend itself against the formidable Israeli Defence Force, has still greater ‘security concerns’.) This right to exist does not, however, entail recognising Israel as a Jewish state, as Israel demands. A state constitutionally rooted in religion and/or ethnicity, would fall short of democracy and would deny equal rights to Israeli Arabs.
- Second, the establishment of a viable Palestinian state endowed with the properties of a state, such as control of its borders. The precise location of those borders can be negotiated, but if, say, some Israeli settlements are allowed to remain, they must be compensated by equivalent land-swaps elsewhere. Key Palestinian roads must not be reserved for the exclusive use of Israelis (as now) sealing off Palestinian areas from each other.
- Third: scarce Palestinian resources, (such as water) must be available for its own benefit.
- Fourth: the human rights of minorities present in the other state must be protected: any remaining Israeli settlers (as may be agreed) in Palestine, and Arabs in Israel. For example, this requires, for the Israelis, the right of passage to Israel and due protection by the Palestinian police; for the Arabs, the right to public services, education, and especially adequate housing, where they are currently the victims of radical discrimination.
- Fifth: mutual respect between the mainstream religious communities of Jews and of Muslims. (This principle admits the presence of extremist elements on both sides, who demand the expulsion or destruction of their enemies, but withdraws legitimacy from them.)
Whereas the USA, Israel’s principal patron, can scarcely be impartial, the EU has a trade agreement with Israel whilst also remaining the largest financial supporter of the Palestinian Authority. Helping mediate this tense process therefore remains one of the EU’s principal foreign policy responsibilities. Can the Arab spring extend to Palestine?
Frank Turner SJ